Ten Gothic Gardens
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Hawkstone Park
It's difficult to see how Hawkstone could have escaped our attention up to now. Trying to find things to do on my late sojourn in Shropshire, I scanned the Ordnance Survey map, and noticed the 'castle' and 'follies' recorded at Weston. Wednesday 17th October came, and off I went, traversing the lanes of Shropshire to reach my destination.

The owner of Hawkstone in the mid-18th century, Sir Rowland Hill, saw the potential of the local landscape south of his house, with its valley between two towering red sandstone cliffs one of which was ringed by the remains of a real medieval castle: it had every capacity of improvement from what was already an interesting reality to the most exciting fantasyland. The first step came in 1748 when Rowland incorporated the Red Castle into Hawkstone Park and laid out walks around it, but for the most part he seems to have left the landscaping and folly-building to his son and heir Richard. Richard was a bit of a religious nutcase, and along with his youngest brother Rowland (who was ordained deacon but refused ordination as a priest by no fewer than six Anglican bishops) caused his father endless headaches: Sir Rowland 'spent his later years trying to moderate the religious propensities' of his sons. There were already plenty of visitors by the time Sir Rowland died and when he inherited Richard was determined to turn the park into even more of a  tourist attraction, arranging for a guidebook to be published. Dr Johnson even named one item on the tour - the 'Awful Precipice', which appeared on the itinerary after he wrote about it. Richard discovered and had dug out 'The Cleft', a dramatic narrow gorge on the hilltop which could excite the most interesting feelings. Subsequent Hills tweaked and amended the landscape, but like all good aristocrats, they went bankrupt, the Hall's contents were auctioned and gradually the estate was sold off and the follies were forgotten. The Hawkstone Park Hotel company acquired the parkland in 1990, and over the next three years restored as much as possible of what they were pleased to refer to as 'England's first theme park'. The Red Castle is still inaccessible at the moment, but the rest of the park (apart from an outlying tower to the east) is now open. It helped that on my visit it was a lovely sunny day and not yet half-term, so I saw no more than a dozen visitors on my whole tour.

Hawkstone White Tower

Although modern visitors enter the Park at the south end rather than sweeping along the old carriage drive in from the north, the current owners have arranged the route rather cleverly. The visitor centre is in the 'Gothic Greenhouse', from which you get not the slightest hint of what lies in wait - apart from the glimpse of the WhiteTower on the hilltop (yes, I know it isn't white!). Hawkstone central valley
But once around the corner you enter the
central valley with the Red Castle on the left
and the follies on the right. That in itself is
quite a surprise! One of the delightful things
about Hawkstone is the gradual revelation of
prospects and environments.
Hawkstone White TowerHawkstone obeliskHawkstone Swiss Bridge
The White Tower (with plastic residents), Obelisk and Swiss Bridge provide spectacular views and thrilling sensations of danger ...
Hawkstone The CleftHawkstone The CleftHawkstone The Cleft
The Cleft, the narrow gorge on Grotto Hill. 18th-century visitors imagined the 'violent convulsions of the earth' which had formed this amazing feature, and fantasized about the rocks closing in on them ...
Hawkstone Grotto
Grotto Hill boasts the
largest grotto in an English landscape park, topped by the Gothic
Arch ...
Hawkstone Grotto Arch
Hawkstone through the Grotto Arch
Hawkstone, from The Urn
Views, up at the towering rocks and out
from the hilltops, are an important part of the
whole Hawkstone experience ...
Hawkstone from Grotto Hill
I spent a couple of hours touring the park, delightedly moving from one landscape to another, enjoying my own enjoyment of ever-so-slight feelings of danger that the odd people who tweaked this environment in a Gothic way clearly intended me to feel. The Hills didn't describe their work in writing, but the accounts of others continually compare Hawkstone to the works of dramatic landscape painters - Claude, Poussin, and of course Salvator Rosa - and demonstrate a close relationship with that whole Gothic visual imagination.

It was these sorts of musings - especially thinking how Hawkstone contrasts with another great manufactured landscape, Stourhead, created a couple of decades earlier, where dramatic yet gentle views sweep down to a lake, Grecian temples scatter the vistas, and sweet reason reigns - that led me to the whole idea of the Gothic Garden, one designed not for peace and tranquility, but to engender the shudder and the thrill.

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